I visited a Zen practice group recently, and they recited the Four Great Vows. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with saying them, because honestly I feel like they’re impossible.
The Four Great Vows are recited as a regular part of the liturgy at almost all places of practice. There are many translations commonly in use in English. Here is a sampling:
Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them.
Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them.
The Dharmas are boundless, I vow to master them.
The Buddha Way is unsurpassed, I vow to attain it.
Sentient beings are numberless – I vow to save them all.
Delusions are endless – I vow to cut through them all.
The teachings are infinite – I vow to learn them all.
The Buddha Way is inconceivable – I vow to attain it.
The many beings are numberless – I vow to save them.
Greed, hatred and ignorance rise endlessly – I vow to uproot them.
Dharma gates are countless – I vow to wake to them.
Buddha’s way is unsurpassable – I vow to embody it fully.
The very nature of a vow is that it’s somehow stronger than an ordinary promise or pledge. It signifies a clear intent, a direction, a path that a person is determined to take, no matter what happens. A vow is a way of declaring publicly (or in one’s heart), “I am going this way! Period!” Vows make us sit up and take notice of what we’re doing. When we vow to do something, we get a certain in-your-face physical feeling of anxiety. “What if I can’t do this?” “What if something happens?” “What if I change my mind?” Whatever it is that comes up, we tend to take vows very seriously.
How do you take a vow to do something that is, almost by definition, impossible? It is the nature of a vow to call our attention to the difficulty involved. It is the nature of being human that failure, even repeated failure, is likely. Yet, we make vows. We try. We make every conceivable effort. We forget. We fall short. We fall down. We get up again. It gets interesting when we get up again – when we’ve dusted ourselves off and recognized our mistake. Where do we go from there? A vow, an unwavering intent, makes our direction clear.
The Four Great Vows use words like numberless, boundless, inconceivable, endless, and infinite. That’s heavy-duty stuff! These statements reflect the reality of our practice though, and it’s not unuseful to know that from the outset. The capacity for making mistakes is as endless and infinite as our potential for awakening. There is an expression, “seven times fall down, eight times get up”. Maybe the eighth time represents the inconceivable, endless and infinite number of times that we will dust ourselves off and keep going.
We never “arrive” in the magical land of enlightenment and live happily ever after there. This is the poignancy of being human. But, what we can do is continue, moment to moment, day after day, to keep a clear direction.
We wouldn’t want small, limited and limiting vows. It would be too easy to interpret them in ways that fit us, are attractive to us, add something special to us, or allow us to avoid dealing with the things that we privately want to hang on to.
Our practice is boundless. The heart/mind is infinite. And, the Buddha Way is, indeed, inconceivable. Our practice is about breaking out of the small prison that we build for ourselves, deconstructing it and even removing the floor that we stand on. Our practice is to open ourselves without reservation to the situations, people, and assorted sentient beings in front of us just now, just as they are, and to help in any way we can. There is no limit to this process. There’s no finish line. Include everything.